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Friday, 21 September 2012


“I like America, just as everybody else does. I love America, I gotta say that. But America will be judged.”
Bob Dylan

It’s only 500 words long but it may be one of the best pieces of journalism produced in America in the 19th century. Every sentence holds a precious revelation about human nature that takes us to places Hawthorne, Thoreau and Whitman (but not Poe) scarcely dared imagine. Since returning from the South Seas where he lived among cannibals, (as one did in those times) Otis Massachusetts resident Edward Hazard has scratched a living as a carny attraction, thrilling his audience when he remarks that he still has “a yearning for roast baby”. Now he has been sentenced to a month’s jail for raiding an old neighbour’s pork barrel. Hazard is unrepentant when a local farmer sneers, “Yer’d better have stuck to man meat and let the pork alone.” “I wouldn’t want to chew your tough old carkiss,” he snarls back. You can hear the tobacco juice thud on the sawdusted floor. “Only five cents to see the oldest cannibal in Berkshire County”, the placard outside his tent reads, reminding us in its unassuming way that there are several other human flesh eaters out there in the Massachusetts woods. That world is long gone now and when you read this article think of the line Jack Nicholson’s character George Hansen came out with in Easy Rider.  You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.”
The man above is not Edward Hazard but it isn’t hard to believe it could be. Sometimes it seems there is hardly a portrait of a 19th century American who doesn’t look like a hell raising Baptist, a liquor crazed assassin or some other fanatic.  

 In the 19th century the US was a wonderful place to be religious. The only restrictions on belief were what your denomination placed on them and if you disagreed with those you could always stat your own church. Hundreds did, including John Noyes. The Oneida community he established in the late 1830s (contemporaneously with Mormonism) is famous for two things. One was its doctrine on sexual practices, a litany of codes of conduct that included ‘complex marriage’ wherein every man in the community was married to every woman and two people could not live together exclusively without a third’s permission. ‘Male Continence’ required that men should not ejaculate inside women, an idea that stemmed from Noyes’ wife Harriet delivering several stillborn children and his subsequent notion that he had wasted a fair bit of seed in the process. “Ascending Fellowship’ was the most dubious. Younger members had to learn the distinction between sex and love ad one way was to introduce virgins to other members ‘closer to God’, that is, older. It meant of course that older men in the community had their choice of virgin girls though the older women were expected to break in the boys. By the 1880s the communities scattered across the north east of the USA had started to fracture and one tried and tested American way to reunite them was to form a joint stock company, so Oneida Inc was formed, becoming famous throughout the US as the manufacturer of silverware and cheap ceramics. Later it branched into garden furniture.
Given the proliferation of heretical, communistic, free love sects blossoming across America in the 1840s and 50s, you might think Catholicism was regarded as fairly staid, yet no other denomination was regarded with greater suspicion or had as many rumours of dark practices attached to it. The girls in this tintype were either photographed in Maine or in Canada, in which case they’d most likely either be of Irish or French descent.  

 The newspapers of the late 19th century are full of news stories of people going mad on their wedding night, brawling with the in-laws, with jealous suitors and literally in Adam Symes’ case. In January 1879 he married Jennie Graham after what to all appearances had been a normal engagement. Around 11 the wedding party broke up and the newly titled Mr and Mrs Symes went to bed. About an hour later Adam Symes left the house, only partly dressed (whatever precisely that means, but it was mid-winter) and wasn’t seen till Sunday, five days later, when the owners of a hotel in a nearby village brought him home. He had no recollection of being married and didn’t recognize his wife. The next stop was the asylum.
A slower fuse burned in Uriah Wales’ brain. After his wife made a joke about his church, the Free Christians, he announced that he would not speak to her until she’d ‘seen the error of her ways’.  From then on all correspondence was conducted with their son as the go-between. Ten years later Wales was in church when his wife entered, walked to the front and announced, ‘I do not believe any man who is truly religious can ignore his wife for ten years. Uriah, get down on your knees, be awakened to the error of your ways and ask forgiveness for your sins.” Shocked, or embarrassed, Wales ran out and wasn’t seen by anyone until the next Sunday when he suddenly appeared at the church door, walked down the aisle and embraced his wife. “The Lord has forgiven all,” he announced. ”And I am a Christian at last.” Good to hear.
Maybe the humour has dated but 120 years ago people laughed at the same things we do, especially marriage. He has been off to the Married Men’s Club. Such places still exist, mostly it seems as support groups, that is, in complete agreement with, men who want to have affairs or spend a few guilt free hours at a strip club.

 Cupid looks on approvingly as she burns an impressive stack of letters. Was this an actual ritual back then? The peculiarities of marriage make you think it may have been.
Heartbroken at the news the boy she was betrothed to had been killed at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, the girl took to her room with a chicken as her only companion. They ate meals off the same plate and her family overheard her having long conversations with it. Somehow – the newspapers skipped over this bit - a dog killed the bird. Thereafter she sat by the window, refusing to speak to her family or take food, and stared out the window at the clouds.
A few years later Elizabeth Krehber, 20, appeared before a magistrate in Brooklyn claiming her husband had beaten her. When the husband, Christian Krehber, appeared to answer the allegations an alternative story emerged. Mr Krehber, 75, said he had arranged for the marriage with a certain Caspar, peddler and occasional bride finder. Christian at least confirmed Elizabeth’s assertion the marriage was not happy. He stated that she frequently beat him about the head, once with an axe. She also broke one of his fingers.

On April 19 1897 Kansas farmer Alexander Hamilton added his story to the hundreds of other reports of the strange aircraft seen over the plains in the last year. Most witnesses had played it down, describing a ubiquitous cigar shaped machine that did little more than emit a loud hum and scare the livestock, but Hamilton claimed he’d seen one of the occupants lean out, lasso one of his heifers and haul it on board. The dead animal was discovered on a neighbour’s property the next day, with no hoof-prints nearby. The problem was – this came out much later – Hamilton belonged to a liars’ club. He and his pals passed the time in the general store making up tall tales, which says something about the dearth of entertainments available in those times. Go forward six years and another from those parts, William Martin, began producing real photo postcards of giant corn-cobs, potatoes, apples, rabbits and locusts. The same down-home sense of humour intended to raise the same dry chuckles, but Martin can be credited with helping to create an indigenous vernacular. In a few years exaggeration postcards like his would be all over the Midwest.   
The real mystery of the 1896 – 97 UFO sightings incidentally is who was flying a powered dirigible over the Midwest of the US and why did he keep his identity hidden. Aeronauts already acknowledged that such a vehicle was feasible and whoever first successfully built one stood to become rich. 

 What did Americans think of that land above the 60˚ parallel? Canadians did burn down the White House in 1812, which no doubt left some with a grudge that would live on through the generations (technically speaking it was the British but they came from across the border), and they spoke French up there, which was reason enough not to trust them, but mostly you think the country itself was considered a vast wasteland of snow and forest, until gold was discovered on the Klondike River in 1895. The Yukon was probably the worst place in the world to find gold; officially the climate is considered sub-arctic, but that only means it could hit lows of -50˚ in the winter while the summers were short, brutally humid and infested with mosquitoes and black flies. So what inspired a group of New York women from the city’s wealthiest and most notable families to establish the Woman’s Klondike Expedition Syndicate in 1897? You might want to think they had a grand dream for women to seize the control of capital but the scheme involved travelling by Pullman coach across the US, by steamer to arrive in Dawson City then leave for the goldfields in a series of supremely outfitted horse drawn vans complete with sleeping quarters and wait-staff. Before leaving New York the women were expected to buy some of their own provisions including a small pillow and two corduroy dresses lined with flannel. “This expedition,” the prospectus read, “goes out in the early Spring, thoroughly equipped and bounteously provisioned.” Among the crew would be a surgeon, an assayer and a photographer. Somehow, but you have to say not surprisingly, the Woman’s Klondike Expedition Syndicate quietly disappeared from the news pages.
Whoever produced this postcard ignored one of Martin’s essential rules. You weren’t seriously meant to think his images were genuine but you were expected to wonder why they looked like they were.

 See Niagara Falls and die. A lot did, some accidentally though you wouldn’t say by chance when their barrel smashed on the rocks below, while others were drowned attempting to navigate the whirlpools in a reckless effort to get as close to the cascades as possible. But Niagara Falls was also a favoured destination for suicides. This is understandable; anyone who leaped from the top knew they couldn’t survive. The odd thing is that to get to the Falls from Toronto or New York, where most of the suicides came from, required time, money and effort, three things likely to dissuade any but the most determined. Niagara Falls was a very public place to do yourself in. At any time of the year it was full of sightseers so suicide was an exhibition, a display of revenge against a world that had disappointed. No real surprises then that most jumped with a broken heart. Nothing else is so likely to make sensitive souls feel that the world is against them.
No surprise either that Niagara Falls was the honeymoon capital of North America. What could be more romantic than facing nature’s awesome power while holding the hand of your new spouse? Where else could you experience the sheer magnitude of your life-changing decision so viscerally? What’s a little hard to understand then is why so many honeymooners chose to be photographed in a studio with the Falls as a painted backdrop when the real thing was just metres away? It would be considered very peculiar today to travel to Niagara Falls and be photographed against a studio prop. Back then the photographer’s studio was an essential stop of the honeymooners’ itinerary.

 He looks like the culprit behind this story reported in 1872 – long before he was born, but that’s not important. At a school picnic in Idaho a boy kills a snake, species unspecified, and wraps it around a girl’s neck. She screams, understandably, and can’t be consoled, throwing a dampener on the event. A week later however she seems to have recovered and leaves her house. On the street she meets the boy, is convulsed with panic and drops dead.
But he called also be the boy known only as Jaggers. Offended that he was asked to donate money for the hungry children of India, he reasoned that their life was better than his. He after all didn’t have the opportunity to hunt tigers or go about all day dressed in nothing more than a loincloth. Gathering ten of his school friends together, he had them to dress in rags and coat themselves in coal dust then they marched to Sunday School where he announced that he was founding a new religion and the Christians ought to donate to their charity. A severe caning was enough to persuade him to fear the Lord.

We – non-Americans, that is – still think America is strange but when we say that these days it’s usually with the implication that something has gone wrong, or been lost. The carnival sideshow is a thing of the past. You have to be in your fifties to remember an actual half man/half woman, boxing tents and girlie shows, and a bit older than that to recall a time when you couldn’t leave the grounds without having your photo taken in a studio car, boat or plane. People will say that the freaks moved out of the sideshow and into the streets but America staked its credibility on being open to outsiders, and excess, so no one was too surprised to hear of cannibals living in the Massachusetts forest and to make your new religion work you had to sell notions that were far fetched enough to convince some you couldn’t be making it up. Look at the faces of these two. This is the stuff that has really been lost, a belief in the power of innocence.



  1. The sideshow is still around, it's just that it's broadcast to everyone now. Turn on any "talk" show and you'll witness America at its strangest. Jerry Springer and Maury Povitch make a living being sideshow barkers. And let's not forget "reality" shows, though often they were the brainchild of someone in another country. Putting a bunch of spoiled brats on an island in fake tribes can't get much stranger.

    1. You didn't mention presidential campaigns. I thought Coast to Coast was about as sideshow as America could get and then I heard people who took it as gospel truth.

  2. Great article and intriguing photos. Thanks!


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